01.10 - 05.11.2020
I can’t stress this enough: Modernity is white Settler colonial domination. It is extraction/conquest of and over territory and geographies, bodies/flesh, thought and imagination. I really can’t stress this enough. The conceptualisation (and I dare say it, the capacity) of Settler social relational arrangements, the imaginaries and fantasies of territorial expansion, are extremely parasitic on the bodies/flesh of Blacks, and heavily dependent on warping, undermining, and “annihilat[ing] any possibility of imagining”1Mbhele, M. 2019. On BLF’s Demanding the Impossible. Accessed here. , thinking and living Otherwise. This too I can’t stress enough.
So, whenever contemporary art invites us to this dance, to meditate on the possibilities, which is to say potentialities, of thinking antithetically to the above proposition, I take a sit, take note and listen, even as it exhausts certain tropes and grapples with all the conceptual anxieties that haunt it(s imaginative capacity).
I am drawn to Asemahle Ntlonti’s Nothwala impahlana, housed at WHATIFTHEWORLD for its artistic and conceptual strategies, as well as its curious accompanying explanatory gestures. The work, an abstract quintet of pieces (one of the artworks is only available online) and the artist’s first solo presentation with the gallery, is strikingly thematically laden. Its expansive dreamscape becomes the site of incoherent narration and rethinking of narrative devices. These include ontological recuperation, search and discovery, space and place, geography (or “performative geography”2Young, H.B. Performance Geography: Making Space in Jeremy Love’s Bayou. Volume 1, reinforced by the actual naming of the artworks: EMAWENI, ITAFA, INYANGA) and demarcation.
The canvas is the territory. The affect is a claim to and desire for territory. Smudges of green Sunlight soap greased beneath green unthreaded polypropylene bags, ingxowa, that hang drippingly and vulnerable to the unremorseful force of gravity; sparse splashes of gold dotting the canvas (territory) often hiding shyly under the dense thicket of mountainous unthreaded green material. In some of the pieces a black line can be seen demarcating and marking space but never spilling beyond the green soap hue. Feelings of the domestic are evoked through the plastered pieces of paper from torn wheat flour bags. It is this reference to bread, I argue, that links the work to land (territory) as the Fanonian tradition teaches; “For a colonized people the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all, dignity.”3Fanon, F. 1961. The Wretched of the Earth (emphasis mine).
Asemahle deploys the cartographic aesthetic, by way of fantastic myth-making, to construct Otherwise worlds. (Whether “true or made-up”, real or imagined, troubles and interests the artist the least). This could be read, in one instance, as a kind of ‘re-ordering of reality’, in the Michael Dash sense4Dash, M. 1974. Marvellous Realism: The Way out of Negritude, and, on the second instance, a kind of “remastering of space”, to borrow a concept from Xavier Livermon5Livermon, X. 2020. Kwaito Bodies: Remastering Space and Subjectivity in Post-Apartheid South Africa. This generative radical reproduction of the alternative or imagining “new narrative lines of flight”6Demos, T.J. 2013. Return to the Postcolony. (even as the persistent hydraulics of white supremacist epistemic, physical, and extractionist violence constantly foreclose on the possibilities of this portal) is charming and curious simultaneously. Particularly charming is the metaphoric use of found objects to construct this alternative, because as Fred Moten reminds us, “objects can and do resist”7Moten, F. 2003. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition.
Particularly curious is the coupling and conjuring of alternative worlds with the self-care rhetoric (Lindsey Raymond’s lacklustre write up is replete with these recuperative gestures; “solace”, “paradise”, “life-giving”, “seeking out of peace”, “healing”, “self-love”8Raymond, L. 2020. Gallery Text in ‘Nothwala impahlana’ [Exhibition Portfolio]. Accessed here. ) so ubiquitous and pervasive in South African contemporary ‘decolonial’ zeitgeist. This trend is not too far from what Calvin Warren terms the “humanist affect” which he accuses of “provid[ing] temporary reprieve from the fact that blacks are not safe”, which is to say, cannot be safe, “in an antiblack world”9Warren, C. 2018. Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism, and Emancipation .
But myth-making by the artist, particularly the act of indirectly mining Intsomi’s (isiXhosa narrative genre and mythology) narrative strategies, in service of desiring, talking, dreaming of freedom, is a kind of conspiracy to productive theft10Phrase by Fred Moten (2015) in a talk titled Do Black Lives Matter?: Robin D.G. Kelley and Fred Moten in Conversation and reinforces Roland Barthes theorization of mythology as “stolen language”11Barthes, R. 1957. Mythologies. The materials used enrich this body of work and make for an interesting project considering that the artist says she saw them in a dream.